Paint the Town

Turner Town
Sat. 11th May, 2002

 J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) was a long lived and influential English painter whose legacy both inspires and supports artists today. A recent visitor to this site, Graham Shaw, from Nottingham suggested a theme evoked by a water-colour painting from around 1823 called simply, Newcastle upon Tyne. Graham thinks that this 15.2 x 21.5 cm work lies hidden in the Tate Gallery's stack in London.

I took a close look at the reproduction and tried to pinpoint the position of the artist from the visible landmarks.

Newcastle upon Tyne, Turner 1823
The modern riverside viewpoint

 The most obvious link between the painting and the modern view is St Mary's Church, to the left of the Tyne Bridge. The Castle, St. Nicholas Cathedral, and All Saints church are hidden behind the modern buildings, and the Elswick Shot Tower, visible in the middle of the painting has been demolished.

St Mary's from the river
All Saints glimpsed from the Quayside

St. Mary's was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1979 and was left a derelict hulk for some years before Philip's Auctioneers bought the property for sales and storage around 1994.

All Saint's Church, on the Newcastle side, glimpsed on the left from the Quayside, was erected between 1786 and 1789 and was built to an innovative elliptical design by local architect David Stephenson (1757 - 1819) under whom John Dobson studied. The spire was added later in 1796. It was deconsecrated in 1961 and was restored during the 1970s as is now used as a church resource centre. Its elliptical shape and unusual almost domed roof are depicted, if a little strangely, in the painting.

All Saints - neo classical Regency style
All Saints through the trees

Stephenson won the commission for this church, located on the site of an earlier mediŠval building, in a competition.

His elliptical design was original and the classical exterior does not prepare one for the huge domed space inside, enclosed by galleries, wood panelling and pews.

It was his intention to break the traditional mould, whilst still suggesting the expected treatment in the exterior detail.

By this time, Stephenson was well established as a builder and architect, being involved in the rebuilding of the Tyne bridge after the disastrous flood of 1771 and the erection of the original Theatre Royal in 1788, later demolished by Grainger and replaced by the present building in 1837.

Shot Factory site from Arena

The Elswick Shot Tower, depicted in the painting, was located beside the riverbank, and the picture above shows the site of the lead factory from the new Newcastle Arena, occupying the site of the old rail marshalling yard. The new Redheugh Bridge is visible in the background. The banks are steep at this point, a feature well represented in the painting, but I think that the position of the shot tower is wrong; it was much closer to the riverside.

The lead works was relocated here in the 18th century and opened as Walkers Ward and Fishwick in 1778. The shot tower was a chimney like structure with a domed top and was used to make lead shot. Molten metal was conveyed to the top of the tower and sprayed through an industrial version of a shower head. The droplets of lead formed perfect spheres as they fell and were solid by the time they hit the water bath below.

The tower was built in 1795 and was part of the Newcastle skyline until its removal in 1969. Below is a view of the lead works building from the riverside.

Shot factory and Skinnerburn Road
Dunn Street and Railway Terrace

The Elswick Gas Works opened in 1859 to supply Town Gas, derived from the heating of coal and producing coke as a by-product. It lay just to the east of the lead factory, and complaints about the sulphurous and unpleasant smell persisted from its inception until its final closure just after the Second World War. The large circular structures are gas holders where the now Natural Gas piped from the North Sea is stored.

The old main lineThe row of buildings to the right extend from Dunn Street here to Water Street behind the camera and were the site of Richrdson's Tannery, active from 1863 until 1971. The buildings are now used by car dismantlers and small associated undertakings.

The railway dominated the area above the factories, with a huge marshalling yard and the main tracks to the west through Hexham and Carlisle. Here is the line of that once main route today, relegated to forgotten branch since the demise of a rail bridge at Scotswood in 1982. Trains now use the route through Gateshead.

The goods yard was removed and the site used for the Newcastle Arena, an exhibition and concert space of truly massive proportions

I am sure that Turner would find plenty to capture in today's city, albeit without the sulphurous fog and smoke that used to shroud the valley during the heyday of unfettered chimney emissions.

The shapes are maybe slightly different, but the aspirations, emotions and apreciations of people are the same today as they ever were. Whilst looking at Turner as a "romantic" let us not fall into the trap of thinking of folk from an earlier age as less inteligent caring or aware than people today.

Indeed,  ignorance, greed, and Philistine attitudes can be found in abundance in our modern society, as well as a dedicated kernel of untrammelled evil that would destroy society, "beause it's a laugh, innit?"

Is this the wrong side of the tracks?
Redheugh and King Edward Bridges

Click here to see high quality album copies of these and other photographs from the same shoot

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